Biography of Antonio Canova
Antonio Canova was born November 1, 1757, in Possagno, Italy, a village within the Venetian Republic, to Pietro Canova, a stonemason, and Angela Zardo. Following Pietro's death in 1761, Angela remarried the following year and young Antonio was raised by Pietro's father, Pasino Canova, who owned a marble quarry and was also a stonemason and sculptor. With this upbringing, Antonio showed potential early on. Although apocryphal, a story is told that the boy attracted attention when he carved a lion's head out of butter at age six or seven while attending a dinner party. His skill seems to have attracted the attention of the Venetian senator and arts patron Giovanni Falier. At Falier's recommendation, Canova was apprenticed to the sculptor Giuseppe Bernardi when he was fourteen years old.
Canova spent about two years in Bernardi's bustling Venetian workshop, and after the master's death in 1774, entered the workshop of Bernardi's nephew, Giovanni Ferrari. Through these apprenticeships he strengthened his skill at stone carving by assisting with a variety of commissioned works. He also took life drawing classes at the Venice Academy of Fine Arts, sketching live models to improve his ability to represent the figure, a fundamental skill for a traditional artist. At the same time, Canova frequently visited the extensive collection of aristocratic art collector Filippo Farsetti, where he carefully studied the terracotta models by Baroque masters such as Gian Lorenzo Bernini, along with plaster copies of Classical Greek and Roman sculptures. In return, Canova produced his first independent works, two Baskets of Fruit (1774), for Farsetti, who placed them in the staircase of the palazzo that housed his collection.
In the following few years, Canova's connections among the Venetian elite led to numerous commissions for portraits and mythological figures, including Eurydice and Orpheus, a pair of figures he made for his early supporter Senator Giovanni Falier in 1775-77, and Daedalus and Icarus (1777-79), commissioned by Procurator Pietro Pisani and shown at the Venetian Fiera della Sensa exhibition. Already in these early works, Canova strove to emulate the ideal proportions and forms of Classical sculpture, emphasizing the grace and beauty of the figures and even depicting his portrait subjects in minimal drapery rather than contemporary clothing. The dynamic gestures and dramatic expressions of these figures, however, were also informed by more recent Baroque practice, which tended to favor heightened emotions and movements.
Thanks to his success, Canova was able to undertake a tour of Italy in 1779-80, his primary goal being a visit to Rome, where he could see Classical Greek and Roman sculptures first-hand. In a diary of his travels, he also recorded experiences in Bologna, Florence, and Naples. Canova was welcomed in Rome by the Venetian Ambassador Girolamo Zulian, who became an enthusiastic patron. By 1781, thanks in part to Zulian's support, as well as a three-year stipend from the city of Venice, Canova established a studio in Rome. That same year, Canova received a commission from Zulian that established his place on the European art scene: the epic Theseus and the Minotaur (1781-82), a work that was acclaimed by writers and other artists and is often considered the first major Neoclassical sculpture.
Once settled in Rome, Canova soon earned further commissions, including large-scale funerary monuments for two popes, portraits, religious works, and mythological subjects. In these works, he combined several sources of inspiration - including continued careful study of Classical sculptures, naturalistic drawings of live models, and sixteenth and seventeenth-century paintings - to develop his characteristic style. He was surrounded in Rome by a community of artists from across Europe who similarly revered Classical antiquity and were still fascinated by the recently rediscovered ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, but also valued the direct study of nature. Among these were the Scottish painter, archaeologist, and art dealer Gavin Hamilton, a leading figure in the emerging Neoclassical movement who befriended and advised Canova. It was Hamilton who had suggested that Canova represent Theseus in the sculpture Theseus and the Minotaur in a contemplative pose after having killed the beast, rather than in the struggle of battle. The French art and architectural historian and theorist Antoine Quatremère de Quincy was another supporter; he saw the Theseus in Canova's studio in 1783 and became a lifelong friend and correspondent, publishing a monograph on the sculptor in 1836. By 1787, Canova had achieved such acclaim that the architect Pietro Zaguri declared in a speech at the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice that the artist had "in a few years and still in his youth equaled the skill of the most famous Greek sculptors."
Canova's growing fame led patrons from across Europe to seek out his work. One of his best-known sculptures, the reclining Cupid and Psyche (1787-93), was commissioned by Colonel John Campbell, a Scottish collector who met Canova in Rome and Naples in 1787 and went on to request a number of works from him. Campbell was unable to pay for the sculpture when it was completed, so it was subsequently bought by Joachim Murat, a French military commander and brother-in-law of Napoleon, who had it and a second, standing version of Cupid and Psyche (1787-97) installed at his estate outside Paris by 1802, where Napoleon himself saw and admired it.
Canova headed a busy studio with several assistants, which enabled him to work on multiple projects simultaneously, in different stages of completion. While these assistants often roughed out the marble blocks and did some more advanced carving, Canova worked on each sculpture in detail, and insisted on finishing each piece himself. His prolific production and extensive network of patrons solidified his preeminence in the 1790s. In 1792 the second of his papal monuments, dedicated to Clement XIII, was unveiled in Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, and in 1796 the author Fausto Tadini published the first book on the artist; in the same year, according to art historian Giuseppe Pavanello, the administrator of the basilica of San Marco in Venice dedicated a room in his residence to a collection of Canova's bas-reliefs and plasters and opened it for public viewing. Despite all his success, the unstable political situation in Europe in the period following the French Revolution soon began to affect the sculptor.
French troops, with Napoleon Bonaparte at their head, invaded northern Italy in 1796, defeating Austrian forces who had previously controlled the region and taking over much of the territory by spring 1797. By the fall, the centuries-old Republic of Venice - where Canova had begun his career - was defeated, and control of the region divided between France and Austria. At this time Napoleon himself wrote to Canova to assure him that the stipend he had been receiving from the Venetian government would continue to be paid and that he would receive protection from the military. Nonetheless, after the French army invaded Rome in 1798, removed the pope from power, and set up a Roman Republic, Canova retreated to Possagno, his native village, which was within the Austrian-controlled region. From there, he initially traveled for several months through Austria and Germany, and when he returned to Possagno he worked primarily on making paintings, partly inspired by works by artists such as Peter Paul Rubens which he had seen on his journey.
In 1799 Canova returned to his studio in Rome, where his assistants had remained along with numerous unfinished projects. These included an over-life size group of Hercules and Lichas, first commissioned in 1795 (but not completed until 1815), and a monument for the tomb of Maria Christina of Austria, commissioned in 1798 (completed in 1805). He also continued to be flooded with new commissions. Perhaps most significantly, several of these came from Napoleon and his associates, particularly after Napoleon took over control of France as First Consul in 1799 and consolidated his power further in the following years, crowning himself Emperor in 1804.
In 1802, the reinstated Pope honored Canova with title Knight of the Golden Spur, named him Inspector General of Antiquities and Fine Arts, and installed his Perseus Triumphant (1801) in the Vatican to replace the sculpture of Apollo Belvedere, which Napoleon had seized and transported to Paris along with many other masterworks from Italy. As the most acclaimed artist in Europe, Canova had already attracted the French ruler's attention, and in the autumn of 1802 he traveled to Paris at Napoleon's invitation to create his portrait, despite his misgivings over working for the general who had attacked and pillaged his homeland. He first modeled a bust-length portrait in clay (subsequently making numerous versions and copies), which he then used as the basis for a monumental sculpture of Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker (completed 1806), but Napoleon ultimately did not accept the work, as he found the figure "too athletic." Also that fall, Napoleon's wife, Josephine de Beauharnais, requested a replica of the standing version of Cupid and Psyche she had viewed at Joachim Murat's estate. Canova, for his part, on seeing these works again, found faults in his carving of the marbles and reworked portions of them on site for several days; he often viewed requests for new versions of his sculptures as an opportunity to improve on his first efforts.
Napoleon and his family recognized the power of the Neoclassical idiom, which Canova so skillfully employed, to create a kind of visual and conceptual lineage to legitimate their power; they also appreciated that the sculptor's wide renown would further burnish their own image. Although Canova rarely created simple portraits, finding them too dependent on naturalistic description rather than imagination, he consented in 1804 to create the portrait of Napoleon's sister, Pauline Bonaparte Borghese, in the guise of Venus Victorious (completed 1808). As with the sculpture of Napoleon, the blending of a mythological Greek god or goddess with the portrait subject granted both the sitter and the work of art a more elevated status. Similarly, Canova's work for Napoleon, whose rise to imperial power over much of Europe gave him an almost mythical aura, further enhanced the artist's fame.
At the same time, part of Canova's role as Inspector General of Antiquities and Fine Arts was to try to retain Italy's artistic treasures in their home country. He also responded more directly to Napoleon's seizure of art in Italy, when, while stopping in Florence on his return from Paris in 1802, the city authorities commissioned him to make a copy of the famed Medici Venus, which Napoleon had taken from the Uffizi Galleries. Ultimately, rather than copy the classical Greek sculpture, Canova made his own version of the standing nude figure, known as the Venus Italica (1803-11), which was widely acclaimed. Several observers found it more appealingly humanized than the remote and idealized Greek sculpture - as the Italian writer and poet Ugo Foscolo commented, "if the Medici Venus is a beautiful goddess, [Canova's Venus Italica] is a beautiful woman."
Canova was summoned to Paris once again in 1810, this time to make a portrait of Napoleon's second wife, Marie Louise, and while there, he also visited the emperor's just-divorced former wife, Josephine, with whom he remained friendly. Two years later, Josephine wrote to Canova to request a new work depicting the Three Graces (1812-17), another of his most celebrated creations. Events soon overtook this commission, however, as Napoleon was defeated by European forces and abdicated as Emperor in April 1814, and Josephine died a month later. Her son Eugène then took over ownership of the Three Graces as it was still in progress. Once Napoleon was definitively defeated at Waterloo in 1815, Europe was reopened for travelers; one English visitor to Canova's studio in Rome, John Russell, Duke of Bedford, requested a second version of the Three Graces (1815-17) which the sculptor worked on alongside the first.
In part thanks to his international profile, Canova was himself drawn into political events in 1815, when he was nominated by Pope Pius VII as ambassador to France and charged with recovering a portion of the hundreds of works of art that had been removed from Italy. After traveling again to Paris, he succeeded after about a month of negotiations. Once the first return shipment of art had been organized, Canova took the opportunity to travel to London in November 1815, where he could visit and thank many of his long-term patrons and supporters and visit collections and museums. Perhaps his primary goal, however, was to see the marble sculptures that Lord Elgin had removed from the Parthenon in Athens and shipped to London just three years earlier. These were among the first original Greek sculptures (rather than later copies) that Canova had been able to see, and in a letter to Quatremère de Quincy, his longtime friend who had been unable to join him on his trip from Paris to London, he expressed his great admiration, describing the sculptures as "real flesh." After Canova returned to Rome in January 1816, the Pope rewarded him for his achievements with the title of Marquis of Ischia and a sum of 3,000 scudi, which the sculptor used in part to set up scholarships for students at the art academy.
By 1816, Canova's fame had long been established; indeed, as scholar Iain Gordon Brown noted, his studio in Rome (along with that of his sometime-rival, Bertel Thorvaldsen) was a required sight on the Grand Tour of Europe made by many cultivated, upper-class travelers, in addition to Rome's classical monuments and Renaissance palaces. As well as art connoisseurs and collectors, many prominent writers figured among his enthusiasts, including Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, Heinrich Heine, Henry James, John Keats, and Lord Byron, who noted in 1818 after visiting Rome that "Italy has great names still... Europe - the world - has but one Canova."
Nonetheless, he continued to immerse himself in his work. Among other new commissions, he received his only request from an American patron, from the state of North Carolina, to sculpt a portrait of George Washington (1816-21) (though the original was destroyed in an 1831 fire), and a request from the British government to create a memorial in Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome to commemorate three members of the royal Stuart family who had died in exile in Italy. Another British visitor to his studio, William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire, commissioned a sculpture from him, Endymion (1819-22), which was among his last completed works. On seeing it, the Duke's wife commented that "it lives, it breathes, it is all life, and youth, and beauty... it is a form so beautiful, of such nature, taste, and loveliness, that I really think it is the most perfect of all his works."
In his last years, despite his declining health, Canova spent much of his time working on the parish church in his birthplace of Possagno. The town had initially asked the artist to contribute to the restoration of the existing church, but given its state of disrepair, Canova soon decided to design a new structure, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, which he envisioned as a model of neoclassical architecture, combining the simple Doric order of the Parthenon with the vaulted dome of the Pantheon. He financed most of the project himself and determined that he would be buried there at his death. In July 1819, the artist symbolically laid the church's cornerstone, although the building was not completed until 1836, after the artist's death.
Canova had worked tirelessly for years and continued to travel to oversee work despite suffering from increasingly poor health. On one of his visits to Possagno in the autumn of 1822, he felt particularly ill, and went to Venice to receive medical care. There, on October 13, 1822, Canova died at the home of a friend. Upon his death, Canova's half-brother and heir, Giovanni Battista Sartori, ensured that he was eventually buried in the church in Possagno, and he subsequently transferred the clay and plaster models, marble sculptures, paintings, drawings, and other items that remained in the artist's Roman studio to the town, where they are now housed in the Museo Antonio Canova.
The European artistic community swiftly mourned Canova. Services in his honor were held in Rome and Venice as well as his hometown of Possagno, and his body treated as if it were a saintly relic. Notably, parts of his body are preserved in Venice: his hand at the Academy of Fine Arts and his heart at Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, in a monument executed by his assistants after a tomb sculpture he himself had designed for the artist Titian.
The Legacy of Antonio Canova
Canova's work helped set the standard for eighteenth-century Neoclassical grace and elegance in sculpture, and his memorable compositions are famous to the present day. His heroically themed works also explored the idea of the sublime, in line with the emerging Romantic movement of the nineteenth century. He was prolific in his production, often creating multiple versions of a sculpture for different patrons. He was widely critically acclaimed during his lifetime, although some writers found his work overly elegant and mannered, particularly in comparison to the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, who worked in Rome in a similar Neoclassical style, but used simpler and more austere forms. After his death, Canova's reputation declined somewhat; this is exemplified by nineteenth century art critic John Ruskin's comment that "the admiration for Canova I hold to be one of the most deadly symptoms in the civilization of the upper classes in the present century." Because his work was so popular, it was often copied by later artists in sculptures of inferior quality, which also harmed his reputation.
Canova had no official students who carried on his legacy, and having devoted his life to his art, he had no direct descendants. He did, however, use his considerable wealth to establish scholarships and other support for young artists and to fund the rebuilding of the church in his hometown, and as a fine arts administrator, he worked to repatriate and preserve Italy's artistic heritage.
Content compiled and written by Sarah Henzlik
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sarah Lees
Content compiled and written by Sarah Henzlik
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sarah Lees
First published on 21 Sep 2021. Updated and modified regularly